In Ad Dollars, March Madness Is Bringing It to the Hoop

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- March Madness is a weeks-long wonderland of marketing opportunities for companies who want to connect with college basketball's audience, but how close is it to becoming the biggest game in town?

Closer than you think.

Last year, the NCAA men's tournament's Final Four brought in $183.8 million in advertising revenue for broadcast partners CBS ( CBS) and Turner Sports, according to Kantar Media. That's a March Madness record and a big part of the reason those broadcasters paid $10 billion for the rights to broadcast the tournament through 2024.

It was still well shy of the $262.5 million the 2012 Super Bowl brought in for NBC ( CMCSA), but much better than the $153 million in ad money that the San Francisco Giants' four-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers earned for Fox ( NWS) back in October. It's a big deal for the Final Four, which has been running in third place since 2009 after bringing in just about $9 million less in ad money than the Super Bowl back in 2008.

That year, the Super Bowl generated only $186.3 million in ad revenue for Fox, which is about $2 million or so more than the Final Four is making right now. Look at it from a complete postseason perspective, however, and the Final Four is gaining on the NFL's big game a lot more quickly. In 2011, the last year for which Kantar had data available, the entire NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament yielded $738 million in ad money from NCAA sponsors including General Motors ( GM), AT&T ( T), Coca-Cola ( KO), Capital One ( COF), Nissan ( NSANY) and Lowes ( LOW). Other heavy hitters such as Anheuser-Busch InBev ( BUD) and SAB Miller, which can't partner with the NCAA because of its alcohol policy, also contributed nearly $50 million on their own.

That total trailed only the $900 million made by the Super Bowl, but pulls more players into the game than the 30 or so parent companies that buy ad time for the NFL's championship matchup. Roughly 80 companies advertise during the tournament each year, though even that number is down from the 125 companies that kicked in for March Madness ad time in pre-recession 2007.

Granted, the NFL's broadcast partners can charge nearly $4 million per 30-second ad during their big game, while CBS and Turner have to settle for less than half of that. The nearly $1.5 million that the NCAA championship game fetches, however, is still better than what sponsors pay for college football's championship ($750,000), baseball's All-Star Game ($575,000), the NBA Finals ($435,000) and the World Series ($421,000).

College football, baseball, basketball and, certainly, hockey don't have anything on the Big Dance. Even the Oscars, which bring in stunning $1.6 million per ad for Disney's ( DIS) ABC, have never topped $85 million in ad revenue.

So why college basketball? Well, the two weeks of games including 68 teams don't hurt. The breakdown of regions into four major market areas in the South, East, Midwest and West aren't so bad, either. Advertisers such as UPS ( UPS), State Farm Insurance and Buffalo Wild Wings ( BWLD) can hit audiences in key NCAA markets and not blow a lot of money on large national campaigns.

Meanwhile, all of those teams playing in a very confined timeframe build fan anticipation and a television following that the pros just can't put together in such a confined bracket during more than a month of playoffs. Super Bowl spectacle aside, it's easy to lose patience when you're not invested in the games, either as a fan, through office brackets or otherwise.

Plus, college basketball's audience reaches its peak among 18- to 35-year-olds who've either just graduated or are rooting on their school while finishing up the payments on their student loans. According to sports entertainment and marketing firm The Marketing Arm, it's a renewable source of youthful passion that doesn't diminish from year to year. It can survive a few years of blowout championship games and can be patient until a small school such as Butler eventually takes the title.

The Super Bowl isn't slowing down, but the tournament hasn't slipped much, either. The NFL would need a lot more than a lopsided matchup to lose the title, but college basketball's advertisers are willing to wait.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.